Sarnoff Revisited (printed November 21)

Letter to the Editor

Corrections or additions?

This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the

November 14, 2001 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper and amended on November 14. A response was printed on

April 6, 2002. All rights reserved.

The Story of Color Television

The year was 1946. World War II had just ended, and

Americans were impatient, eager to catch up on all they had missed

during the war years. Black and white television had made its debut

in 1939, shortly before the war began. Engineered in RCA Labs on

Route 1, and manufactured by RCA Victor in Camden, the first sets

"went over like a lead balloon," says Alex Magoun, director

of the Sarnoff library. Carrying price tags of $200 to $1,000, the

sets were wildly expensive, and there was little in the way of

programming

for them to receive. Americans were still enjoying the novelty of

radio in their homes, and a good tabletop radio could be had for $10.

After the war, though, the idea of "adding sight to sound,"

as David Sarnoff, chairman of RCA put it, began to sound appealing.

Production of all kinds of consumer goods, including electronics,

had been curtailed during the war, and there was tremendous pent-up

demand. Magoun says CBS, an RCA rival, boldly announced to a war-weary

nation: "`Let’s leapfrog. Let’s go straight to color!’"

This was not to be. Not right away. A final standard for color

television

was not approved by the FCC until 1953, and for many years thereafter

only a few programs were broadcast in color. Throughout the 1950s

any color program was a big deal, and it was not until 1966 that NBC

became the first 100 percent color network.

As with any invention, there were alternate development branches and

missteps a plenty. It is difficult to fix the exact date when color

television was born, but Magoun says late-fall 1951 is as good a date

as any. The IEEE is presenting a Milestone award to Sarnoff, successor

to RCA, to honor this accomplishment. Ninety-five percent of the

standard

for broadcasting and receiving color television signals originated

with RCA. Beyond contributing substantially to the development of

color television technology, divisions of the company, under the

leadership

of David Sarnoff, also made the sets and produced programs to fill

their screens.

Magoun speaks on the history of color television at an event titled

"Adding Sight to Sound: Television’s Past, Present, and

Future"

on the Sarnoff corporate campus on Route 1 on Thursday, November 15,

at 8 p.m. Glenn Reitmeier, a Sarnoff vice president and architect

of HDTV, the next generation of television, which also was developed

at Sarnoff, speaks on where television will go next.

Dick Webb, who invented the color television camera, was set to add

his insights. Now retired, and living in Estes Park, Colorado, Webb

has decided against an in-person appearance. "He said there is

just too much stuff going on in New Jersey. He doesn’t feel safe

coming

here," Magoun says. But he is hoping Webb will be able to join

the gathering via a remote hook-up. The event is sponsored by the

ACM/IEEE Computer Society and the public is invited. Call

908-582-7086.

The first design for color television, the one that came from CBS,

then a radio network and owner of the Columbia record label, was

mechanical.

Based on a system invented by Englishman John Logie Baird in 1928,

it was developed by CBS’s Peter Goldmark in 1940. A spiraling,

perforated

wheel was at the heart of this early color television. A camera

scanned

images as the revolving color wheel spun in front of it. It then

transmitted

three fields — red, blue, and green, the primary optical colors

— in sequence. At the receiver end a second color wheel,

synchronized

with the first, reconstructed the image.

"The colors were great," says Magoun of a positive attribute

of this system, which is called field sequential. But the image was

far from perfect. "The problems of the CBS, or any color field

sequential image, are inherent in the trade-offs," he explains.

Each primary color in a frame or displayed image (30 frames per second

in television; 24 frames per second in movies) has to be scanned in

at the same time as one monochrome frame. Therefore the eye sees each

successive color for only one-third of the time. This results is

flicker

when something like a runner, or a car, or a basketball moves across

successive frames. Reducing the brightness of the screen decreased

the flicker, but resulted in an image that had to be watched in a

dark room.

RCA researchers, replicating CBS’s mechanical color television in

their own labs, discovered its limitations for themselves. Television

sets built around it would need to contain a wheel with red, green,

and blue color filters, and would need to be very large — three

times the displayed image, or a three-foot wheel for a 12-inch

display,

plus the motor to drive the wheel.

RCA researchers also considered mechanical color television to be

a step backwards. "They already had an electronic black and white

television," says Magoun. "They said, `if it’s going to be

color, it should be electronic."

Another reason RCA was against adopting CBS’s mechanical system was

economical. The company had just spent a great deal of money

developing

black and white television, and didn’t want to see that investment

go for naught.

Vladimir Zworykin had applied for a patent on an electronic television

system in 1923. His iconoscope television camera — made of

clear glass, and looking something like a cross between a drum and

a medium-size saucepan — is on display at the Sarnoff technical

library. Along with his kinescope, a specialized cathode-ray tube,

it made electronic black and white television practical and

marketable.

His portrait hangs in the library, not far from a portrait of David

Sarnoff.

Zworykin persuaded Sarnoff that he could develop an electronic color

television in two years for $150,000. It took much longer, and the

final cost was something like $65 million, but Sarnoff, a determined

visionary, hung on, even when every other network and manufacturer

gave up on color television.

Sarnoff’s RCA, which he had joined as a young man and

rose to lead, made a commitment to electronic color television, and

prepared to take its case to the FCC, which held the power to decide

what standard would be adopted. In the fall of 1949, there were

"color

shoot outs," says Magoun of hearings before the FCC. He

characterizes

CBS’s impatience to get on with it: "`Look, look,’ CBS was saying,

`We have color. It’s here now.’"

But CBS’s color television was found to be too flickery, Magoun says.

What’s more, its bulky system did not fit into the 13, 6-MHz VHF

channels

that carried black and white television. CBS thought it could solve

that problem by using UHF channels, which had just been made

available.

UHF, says Magoun, allows for wider channels, but produces a picture

that is significantly inferior to that transmitted via VHF channels.

Despite its flaws, and despite the fact that it was not compatible

with black and white television, CBS’s color television technology

was declared the national standard by the FCC in October of 1950.

RCA sued the FCC to halt the start of CBS colorcasts. CBS eventually

prevailed in court in late-May 1951. But while CBS had won the battle,

RCA’s delaying tactic had won it the war.

CBS began color programming on a five-station East Coast network in

June of 1951. But black and white televisions could not receive the

programs. This would not have been a major obstacle for CBS in 1950,

when few homes had a television of any kind, but by the time the first

color programs were cleared for broadcast, 10.5 million black and

white televisions had been sold, about half of them by RCA. Consumers

were not about to buy a separate television to receive the few color

programs available, and so few were sold.

Meanwhile, RCA was working at refining its own color television

system.

Called triniscope, it was a dot sequential system, as opposed to CBS’s

field sequential system, and was developed from 1946 to 1949. It used

three cathode-ray tubes, or CRTs, to project each of the primary

colors.

This color system used a set of mirrors to combine the colors into

one image reflected off another mirror.

Not practical for the average living room, a triniscope television

set, says Magoun, would have had to be "the size of a laundry

machine."

"It was a `kluge,’" says Magoun. "That’s what engineers

call something that works, but isn’t practical." As unwieldy as

CBS’s color system, the triniscope’s color was even worse.

The FCC declined to approve RCA’s color system in 1946, and again

in 1949. Soon thereafter, America became involved in the Korean War

and the government banned the production of all color televisions.

The delay gave RCA time to refine its system.

RCA promised the FCC it would do away with the mirrors and come up

with a color system that used just one tube. "In the winter of

1949," Sarnoff wrote a blank check," says Magoun. "He told

everyone in the labs to put on their thinking caps." Working 18

hours a day under RCA’s Harold Laws, researchers came up with 16

different

proposals. The possibilities were narrowed to five, and then to just

one.

Alfred Schroeder, a retired RCA researcher, now living in Newtown,

Pennsylvania, had applied for a patent for a shadow mask CRT in 1947.

"They decided to take another look at it," says Magoun. The

researchers decided to go with Schroeder’s idea.

A shadow mask is a screen full of tiny perforations.

This color system combined three separate electron guns, one for each

color, in a single CRT. The electron guns shot through tiny holes

in the shadow mask, each hitting dots of red, green, or blue

phosphors.

In early prototypes, there were 150,000 clumps of phosphors, each

one containing all three primary colors. "Each gun had to hit

the right phosphor," says Magoun. "It was a tremendous task

of alignment. Everyone said it couldn’t be done, but it worked."

RCA’s first shadow mask color televisions needed much more tuning

than modern color televisions do, but in eliminating mirrors, multiple

CRTs, and rotating wheels, the labs had come up with a design that

would work in the home. As important, it added color information to

the standard 6-MHz channel, so that existing black and white

televisions

could receive color signals.

The $65-million race to produce a practical color television was a

success. In December, 1953, the FCC approved RCA’s color television

format, and television sets meeting the new standard went on sale

the following year.

The first RCA color sets cost $995, according to Magoun. That would

be the equivalent of $6,186 today. In 1954, it was enough to buy a

car, and nearly enough to buy a modest house. The spread in price

was similar to today’s gap between the analog televisions most of

us have and the newer digital televisions.

The issue of programming is the same, too. "It’s the chicken and

egg thing," says Magoun. Even people who could afford the

substantial

premium for a color set had little incentive to buy one because there

were few color programs. And producers had little incentive to spend

extra money on color programming, because so few homes had color

television.

The same situation exists today with digital television.

Despite all obstacles, Sarnoff forged ahead. A self-made man, he had

emigrated from Russia to the Lower East Side of Manhattan with his

family when he was nine. At the age of 15, he left school to help

support his family. Working for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company

in 1912, he picked up a message relayed from ships at sea: "S.S.

Titanic ran into iceberg, sinking fast."

Rising quickly in Marconi, which became RCA after its U.S. assets

were purchased by General Electric, Sarnoff proposed an idea for a

"radio music box," for radio channels, and then for a radio

network, which became NBC, an RCA subsidiary. He then turned his

attention

to television, and soon thereafter, to color television, and refused

to give up.

By the mid-1950s, every other company stopped manufacturing color

televisions, and few produced color programming. But Sarnoff, losing

some $65 million for RCA over a decade, persisted, despite the fact

that he was angering the the board of directors. Finally, in 1964,

the tide turned, and RCA began to profit handsomely from its

investment

in color television.

The first commercial television program on color film was an episode

of Dragnet that aired in December, 1953. It was followed by such

milestones

as a live telecast of the Tournament of Roses parade the following

month, the first color broadcast of a president (Dwight Eisenhower

in June, 1955), the first color coverage of the World Series (Dodgers

vs. Yankees in September, 1955), and the first colorcast cartoons

(the Flintstones and the Jetsons in fall, 1962).

The premier of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in September,

1961, was a turning point, persuading consumers to go out and purchase

color televisions. But it was not until 1966 that NBC became the first

network to show the color we all now take for granted on all of its

programs. It had taken 25 years from color television to go from its

earliest prototypes to mass acceptance. This, Magoun says, is about

the time every new technology takes to really catch on. He points

out that radio was used for ship-to-shore communications for more

than two decades before it achieved broad penetration in American

homes. The personal computer, available since 1975, is now only in

about 60 percent of households.

Magoun, who has been director of the David Sarnoff library for a

little

over a year, says so much of the communications and electronics

technology

we use every day came out of RCA labs. He is on a mission to preserve

and display milestones in the development these technologies at the

Sarnoff library. It was Sarnoff himself who oversaw the installation

of the dark wood bookcases, fronted with glass, that run along its

walls, and the large glass display cases in the middle of the room.

Sarnoff, who died in 1971 at the age of 80, studied

presidential libraries before designing his own. "He spent the

last 20 years of his life collecting awards," Magoun says of RCA’s

leader. It is those awards — bronze medals, citations, and an

impressive sterling silver model of a sailing ship — that fill

the library. Magoun, however, says that Sarnoff was much more than

a sum of all the scrolls he collected and pictures of world leaders

who honored him. "Sarnoff was innovation," says Magoun. The

rare entrepreneur who appreciated, and listened to, engineers, Sarnoff

took color television, and so much more, from the lab to practical

use by consumers, hospitals, businesses, and the military.

Magoun began to appreciate the man, and what he and his researchers

accomplished, as he spent time in the library researching the history

of the phonograph record for his dissertation. A student at the

University

of Maryland working on a Ph.D. in the history of technology, he did

research one day a week in the library. As he worked, he spoke with

Sarnoff staffers about his opinion that Sarnoff’s library should

showcase

technology, not just the man’s life, and should do so in a way that

would engage scholars, school children, and the public.

Putting forth a convincing argument, Magoun was hired, and has begun

the job of integrating into the library lab notebooks, sketches, and

inventions telling the story of how Sarnoff scientists have worked

on the technologies that underlie so much of life in the 21st century.

Among them is the world’s oldest electron microscope. It sits seven

feet tall and weighs 1,200 pounds. A photo above the microscope shows

Zworykin working with Jim Hillier, inventor of the microscope who went

on to become RCA’s vice president of research and winner of the Albert

Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. He is also father of Bob

Hillier, founder of the Hillier Group architectural firm. "Zworykin

hired Hillier and provided protection from RCA’s beancounters in

stimulating creation of what could be called the medical electronics

industry," says Magoun.

Also on display, sitting atop a case of Sarnoff’s medals, is one of

the earliest optical recording disks. Developed by Bob Bartolini in

the 1970s to early-1980s, it is the precursor of the re-writable CD.

Bartolini is now Sarnoff’s vice president of international business.

Another new exhibit at the library is the science notebook Steven

Hofstein used in working on the MOS transistor. This metal-oxide

semiconductor

field effect transistor is the basis for every computer and electronic

device. "It was a significant breakthrough in the

early-1960s,"

says Magoun.

Fleshing out the library’s displays a little at a time, Magoun speaks

of his desire to have more exhibits that would illustrate the

progression

of Sarnoff’s work. "It would be great to have a line of

televisions

from the ’30s, and the ’40s, and right on through, all showing

Seinfeld,"

he gives as an example. This, he says, would be an engaging way of

getting visitors to ask questions, and make comparisons.

Magoun, a 1981 graduate of Trinity College, studied history there,

and went on to earn a master’s in history at the University of East

Anglia. One of four brothers, he grew up in Manchester, Massachusetts,

"between the Perfect Storm and the Salem witches." His mother,

Faith, worked her way up from volunteer to director of the Lynn,

Massachusetts,

historical society. That was not an easy task in the 1970s, Magoun

says. His father, Frank, became a bond trader after studying history

in college, and being talked out of a career as a professor by his

father, a Harvard professor who thought the profession did not pay

enough.

Magoun wonders if his father would have been happier as a professor,

yet he himself ran into frustrating barriers on a college campus.

After earning his master’s degree, he returned to Trinity to coach

track and cross country. As an undergraduate, he had set the school’s

5K record — 14.40.97, which has yet to be beaten. He enjoyed

coaching,

but he was a part-time coach, and as such had to coach six teams,

while full-time coaches had to coach only two. When the college would

not make the track coaching position full time, he felt he had to

leave.

Magoun is settling into Princeton. Many of his first friends are

members

of the Princeton Hash House Harriers. He explains that hashing is

an extreme form of cross country running where one runner marks a

course in varied, and difficult terrain — behind shopping centers,

across brooks, through back alleys — and the others try to find

their way through it.

Now the hashers are in trouble in a number of states. The reason?

Says Magoun: "You have to mark the trail with something. You want

something biodegradable. What do you use?" Ah, of course, flour!

The substance works beautifully, but police in at least four states

have had to respond to alarmed residents, who came upon the stuff

and suspected it to be anthrax. Investigating costs a fair amount

of money, and peeved police departments have started sending the

hashers

the bills.

Following chalk-marked trails, Magoun continues to run on Sundays

with the Princeton Hash House Harriers. It is one of his few leisure

activities as he spends 10 to 12 hours a day at the David Sarnoff

library and working on a website for it. One thing he does not do

on his time off is watch television. As Magoun prepares to mark color

television’s 50th anniversary, he notes that the sets are as

ubiquitous

in American homes as are faucets. But he does not own one.

"After I come home," he says, "the last thing I want to

do is look at a screen." Even if it displays all of its programs

in living color.

–Kathleen McGinn Spring

Top Of Page
Sarnoff Revisited (printed November 21)

On behalf of the David Sarnoff Library, I would like

to thank you and your writer, Kathleen McGinn Spring, for the

extensive

cover story on the history of the invention of color television (U.S.

1, November 14). We had a full and appreciative audience of over 250

people in Sarnoff Corporation’s auditorium on November 15, thanks

in part to the article. Those who missed the illustrated history and

demonstration of RCA’s first color television receiving converted

HDTV signals from NJN are invited to attend the reception for and

dedication of the IEEE Milestone for the invention of

monochrome-compatible,

electronic color television at the RCA Laboratories on Thursday,

November

29, at 4 p.m. Please contact Alice Archer at 609-734-2636, or E-mail:

(aarcher@sarnoff.com).

New Jersey has been the Innovation Garden State at least since Edison

started spinning off ventures in Menlo Park. The state’s 20th century

history is filled with the technologies we take for granted, from

electronic television and antibiotics to the transistor and liquid

crystal displays. It is in everyone’s best interest to promote that

history, for the sake of education, state pride, tourism, and the

business acumen that arises from understanding the causes of our

technological

and commercial failures and successes.

Alexander B. Magoun

Director, David Sarnoff Library

"mailto:amagoun@sarnoff.com">amagoun@sarnoff.com

Editor’s note: In processing all that data, a few

signals

got crossed. At one point the development of monochrome television

was erroneously juxtaposed with color television. The correct

statement:

"In 1929 Zworykin told Sarnoff he could develop electronic

monochrome

TV in two years. The cost to RCA by 1949 was some $10 million in R&D,

manufacture, service, and programming."

Also the story incorrectly identified the inventor of the electron

microscope: It was James Hillier. "Zworykin hired Hillier and

provided protection from RCA’s bean counters in stimulating creation

of what could be called the medical electronics industry," says

Magoun. Hillier won numerous awards for his efforts to successfully

commercialize what had previously been a laboratory curiosity,

including

the 1960 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, sometimes

known as "America’s Nobel Prize."

Our article on the invention of color television at the RCA

Laboratories after World War II (U.S. 1, November 14, 2001), continues

to provoke E-mail, such as this one from Ricardo Cuadra:

"Why is it, that all of you being scholars and capable of gathering

good research, don’t even mention Guillermo Gonzalez Camarena of

Mexico who obtained the first patent for colored television in the

world back in 1940.

"The first experimental television transmission in Mexico – from

Cuernavaca to Mexico City – was arranged by Francisco Javier Stavoli

in 1931. Stavoli purchased a Nipkow system from Western Television in

Chicago with funding from the ruling party, which was then called the

Mexican Revolutionary Party and became the current Institutional

Revolutionary Party. In 1934 Camarena built his own monochromatic

camera; by 1939, Camarena had developed a Trichromatic system, and in

1940 he obtained the first patent for color television in the world.

In 1942, after Lee deForest met with him in order to buy the rights,

he secured the U.S. patent under description of the Chromoscopic

Adaptors for Television Equipment."

Alex Magoun, curator of the Sarnoff Library and museum, replied.

"Thank you for responding, as I have learned about another television

pioneer. Please allow me, however, to respond in turn.

"You cite a widely repeated, unquestioned article on Sr. Camarena. I

do not doubt his talents and acknowledge the limitations on his

abilities because of the political and economic circumstances in

Mexico in that time. Sr. Camarena, however, was working on

electro-mechanical systems of color television, which is not

surprising given his training as an electromechanical engineer. The

article in U.S.1 highlighted RCA Laboratories because it invented and

demonstrated the first all-electronic color television system, one

that we still use with minimal adaptations today around the world.

"I have strong doubts about the claim made on Sr. Camarena’s behalf

that his August 19, 1940 patent was the first for color television in

the U.S. Patent Office for two reasons. First, the patent number

listed, USP no. 2,296,022, was awarded to M. Chernow on September 19,

1942 for a method of attaching monograms. You can look this up on the

US Patent and Trademark Office’s website: www.uspto.gov/patft/.

Second, Camarena’s could not have been the first for the U.S. since

AT&T certainly patented the electro-mechanical color TV system that it

demonstrated in 1929, and Vladimir Zworykin applied in 1925 for a

patent on a nearly all-electronic color system.

"Perhaps if one was willing to perform some scholarship, we would

begin to know the motivations, inspirations, and frustrations that

shaped this fine man’s career and contributions. Unfortunately,

support for the study of the history of invention and innovation is

poorly funded around the world, and we do not have the resources to

locate such a scholar or inspire them in this direction."

Alex Magoun and the David Sarnoff library will host the 50th

anniversary celebration of RCA’s Electronic Music Synthesizer on

Thursday, April 14, at 8 p.m.

Top Of Page
Letter to the Editor

This response was printed on April 6, 2002

Our article on the invention of color television at the RCA

Laboratories after World War II (U.S. 1, November 14, 2002), continues

to provoke E-mail, such as this one from Ricardo Cuadra:

"Why is it, that all of you being scholars and capable of gathering

good research, don’t even mention Guillermo Gonzalez Camarena of

Mexico who obtained the first patent for colored television in the

world back in 1940.

"The first experimental television transmission in Mexico – from

Cuernavaca to Mexico City – was arranged by Francisco Javier Stavoli

in 1931. Stavoli purchased a Nipkow system from Western Television in

Chicago with funding from the ruling party, which was then called the

Mexican Revolutionary Party and became the current Institutional

Revolutionary Party. In 1934 Camarena built his own monochromatic

camera; by 1939, Camarena had developed a Trichromatic system, and in

1940 he obtained the first patent for color television in the world.

In 1942, after Lee deForest met with him in order to buy the rights,

he secured the U.S. patent under description of the Chromoscopic

Adaptors for Television Equipment."

Alex Magoun, curator of the Sarnoff Library and museum, replied.

"Thank you for responding, as I have learned about another television

pioneer. Please allow me, however, to respond in turn.

"You cite a widely repeated, unquestioned article on Sr. Camarena. I

do not doubt his talents and acknowledge the limitations on his

abilities because of the political and economic circumstances in

Mexico in that time. Sr. Camarena, however, was working on

electro-mechanical systems of color television, which is not

surprising given his training as an electromechanical engineer. The

article in U.S.1 highlighted RCA Laboratories because it invented and

demonstrated the first all-electronic color television system, one

that we still use with minimal adaptations today around the world.

"I have strong doubts about the claim made on Sr. Camarena’s behalf

that his August 19, 1940 patent was the first for color television in

the U.S. Patent Office for two reasons. First, the patent number

listed, USP no. 2,296,022, was awarded to M. Chernow on September 19,

1942 for a method of attaching monograms. You can look this up on the

US Patent and Trademark Office’s website: www.uspto.gov/patft/.

Second, Camarena’s could not have been the first for the U.S. since

AT&T certainly patented the electro-mechanical color TV system that it

demonstrated in 1929, and Vladimir Zworykin applied in 1925 for a

patent on a nearly all-electronic color system.

"Perhaps if one was willing to perform some scholarship, we would

begin to know the motivations, inspirations, and frustrations that

shaped this fine man’s career and contributions. Unfortunately,

support for the study of the history of invention and innovation is

poorly funded around the world, and we do not have the resources to

locate such a scholar or inspire them in this direction."

Alex Magoun and the David Sarnoff library will host the 50th

anniversary celebration of RCA’s Electronic Music Synthesizer on

Thursday, April 14, at 8 p.m.

z

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